This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is a long tale from E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Review: “The Mines of Falun”, E. T. A. Hoffmann, trans. Alex Ewing, 1886.
This story intriguingly alternates between what seems like a fairy tale with realism, exploration of a very Romantic emphasis on emotions and inner turmoil, and an ending that casts the whole thing as a study in psychology. The whole thing is cast as an oral tale being related among friends which make up the collection The Serapion Brethern.
The story opens in July in the port of Goethaborg. There is great happiness at the arrival of a ship from the East India Company, back from a long voyage. The story centers on one of its sailors, the young man Elis Froebom.
He doesn’t feel like joining the Hoensning, a celebration of several days held by sailors at the end of a successful voyage. Some shipmates come to Elis near a tavern. They complement him and say he’s a great sailor. He’s got plenty of money in his pocket, and he should drink up. They think his reluctance to party is because he can’t hold his liquor. He angrily tells him that’s not the problem and quaffs a bottle of brandy. He’s a good sailor, and he can hold his liquor, and he’s not going to say why he doesn’t want to party.
A very attractive woman comes out of the tavern. Her dress and appearance leaves no doubt “as to her terrible calling”. She’s a prostitute. She tries to cheer Elis up, says he should join the party. Melancholic, he says there’s no pleasure in it for him.
He gives her a beautiful handkerchief with a couple of ducats. She refuses the money, but she will keep the handkerchief though he’s unlikely to find her when he returns next year. She goes away crying, and Elis wishes he was “lying deep, deep beneath the sea”.
Then he hears a “deep, harsh voice” saying,
You must have been most unfortunate, youngster, to wish to die, just when life should be opening before you.
Elis sees the figure behind the voice, an old miner leaning against the tavern wall. Then feeling he can unburden himself with this “familiar figure”, he speaks his woes. His father died on their voyage, killed in a storm. Two brothers of his became soldiers and were killed in battle. He came home expecting to see his mother to give her money and tell her stories of his cruises only to find out she died three months ago.
How can he find happiness at sea again? There is no place for him now. The miner has some advice.
I have been observing you, without your knowledge, for the last hour or two, and have had my own enjoyment in so doing. All that you have said and done has shown me that you possess a profoundly thoughtful mind, and a character and nature pious, simple, and sincere. Heaven could have given you no more precious gifts; but you were never in all your born days in the least cut out for a sailor. . . . You are right to say good-bye to that life for ever. But you’re not going to walk about idle, with your hands in your pockets? Take my advice, Elis Froebom. Go to Falun, and be a miner.
The miner goes into a rhapsody about the life of a miner, the noblest calling of all, and the techniques and processes of mining.
Jewels came to life, the fossils began to move; the wondrous Pyrosmalite and the Aldamine flashed in the light of the miner’s candles; the Rock-Crystals glittered, and darted their ways.
Elis thinks a “new and unknown world” has opened to him. It’s off to Falun.
But, before he leaves, he sleeps in a tavern in town and has a dream of flowers and plants of glittering metal. He stands on a crystal floor and through it, far below, he can see
innumerable beautiful maidens, holding each other embraced with white, gleaming arms; and it was from their hearts that the roots, plants, and flowers were growing.
He seems to fall through the floor. He hears the voice of the miner again asking what he thinks of this “world of glory”. A light flashes, and Elise sees a the face of a “grand, majestic woman”. Elis feels his heart “swelling into destroying pain”. The miner tells him, “That is the queen. You make look now.” He hears his mother’s voice calling him, a voice from a “young and beautiful woman”. Elise demands that the miner take him away, but the miner warns him: “Take care, Froebom . . . be faithful to the queen, whom you have devoted yourself to.”
Elis looks at the woman again and feels his personality dissolving. Then he wakes up.
Elis considers the dream to be the result of his talk with the miner. He goes out to the Hoensing. He finds all enjoyment driven from his mind to be replaced by flitting thoughts. He thinks of his dead mother, then about hoping to see the prostitute again, then how he is afraid of the miner yet wants to hear more of the wonders of the mines of Falun. Even when talking to his own shipmates, he hears the miner urging him on to Falun.
He hangs around the town for three days, lingering at the gates of the town. One day, a figure passes him. Though he can’t see the man’s face, Elis thinks it’s the miner and follows.
Hoffmann gives us a long description of the mines of Falun and Elise’s impressions mediated through his time at sea:
Elis looked down into this monstrous abyss, he remembered what an old sailor, one of his shipmates, had told him once. This shipmate of his, at a time when he was down with fever, thought the sea had suddenly all gone dry, and the boundless depths of the abyss had opened under him, so that he saw all the horrible creatures of the deep twining and writhing about amongst thousands of extraordinary shells, and groves of coral, in dreadful contortions, till they died, and lay dead, with their mouths all gaping. The old sailor said that to see such a vision meant death, ere long, in the waves; and in fact he did very soon after fall overboard . . . Elis thought of that: for indeed the abyss seemed to him to be a good deal like the bottom of the sea run dry; and the black rocks, and the blue and red slag and scoria, were like horrible monsters shooting out polype-arms at him. Two or three miners happened, just then, to be coming up from work in the mine, and in their dark mining clothes, with their black, grimy faces, they were much like ugly, diabolical creatures of some sort, slowly and painfully crawling, and forcing their way up to the surface.
The mines fill Elis with dread. At sea, the sky may darken, but the storm passes. As a miner, the sun would always be vanquished. He’ll stay in Falun that night and then go back to Goethaborg.
But he sees a crowd gathered around the house of a mine owner, Pehrson Dahlsjoe. It’s a crowd of seemingly happy and content miners, and they go into Dahlsjoe’s house where they party with song and food and drink. And there is Pehrson’s beautiful daughter, Ulla, whom the miners are all fond of.
And Elis is instantly in love with her. He thinks his dream was of “deep significance” and remembers the queen in the mine and forgets the miner. Ulla invites Elis into her home.
Pehrson talks to him, and Elis relates the recent sorrows of his life. Pehrson considers Elis and says,
I cannot suppose . . . that it is mere thoughtless fickleness and the love of change that lead you to give up the calling you have followed hitherto, nor that you have omitted to maturely weigh and consider all the difficulties and hardships of the miner’s life before making up your mind to take to it. It is an old belief with us that the mighty elements with which the miner has to deal, and which he controls so bravely, destroy him unless he strains all his being to keep command of them–if he gives place to other thoughts which weaken that vigour which he has to reserve wholly for his constant conflict with Earth and Fire. But if you have properly tested the sincerity of your inward call, and it has withstood the trial, you are come in a good hour. Workmen are wanted in my part of the mine. If you like, you can stay here with me, from now, and to-morrow the Captain will take you down with him, and show you what to set about.
Elis’ heart is gladdened. The mine seems less like hell. Elis finds himself, on meeting the Captain, repeating what the miner told him, and the Captain is impressed. Ulla, on hearing this, says he is no longer a stranger. The mines of Falun are now his home.
But the mine seems hellish when Elis goes down in it. At the deepest level of the mine, the memory of Ulla cheers him. As time goes on, Elis becomes a good miner and impresses Pehrson, and Ulla constantly urges him to be careful. Pointing out how much money he’s earned, Pehrson suggests that Elis could one day become a mine owner himself. If he became a mine owner, nobody would object to him marrying Ulla. Elis almost tells Pehrson how much he loves Ulla, but he he is shy. He also has doubts about how much Ulla likes him.
One day he’s working at the deepest level of the mine, when he hears another miner’s pickaxe – even though he’s alone. But there is someone there: the old miner. “Good luck to Elis Froebom, down here among the stones! What think you of the life, comrade?”
Elis is about to ask him how he got down there, but the miner starts insulting him:
There’s a grand run of trap just here; but a scurvy, ignorant scoundrel like you sees nothing in it but a narrow streak of ‘Trumm’ not worth a beanstalk. Down here you’re a sightless mole, and you’ll always be a mere abomination to the Metal Prince. You’re of no use up above either–trying to get hold of the pure Regulus; which you never will–hey! You want to marry Pehrson Dahlsjoe’s daughter; that’s what you’ve taken to mine work for, not from any love of your own for the thing. Mind what you’re after, double-face; take care that the Metal Prince, whom you are trying to deceive, doesn’t take you and dash you down so that the sharp rocks tear you limb from limb. And Ulla will never be your wife; that much I tell you.
The miner’s insults angers Elis, and he threatens him.The miner gives a “sneering laugh” and goes up a ladder.
Elis feels like his limbs are paralyzed and can’t work anymore so he goes to see the Captain in another section of the mine. The Captain, seeing how pale Elis is, asks him what’s the matter. Elis tells him what happened down below.
The Captain says he must have met old Tobern whom he’s heard others talk of. More than a 100 years ago, Tobern was the first to mine in the area of Falun. Nobody knew more about mining than him. He knew the business in and out and excelled at the scientific side. He found the richest lodes and seemed “endowed with higher powers peculiar to himself”.
Yet, he was not a happy man but gloomy, unmarried, and childless. In fact, he really didn’t really even have a home but spent most of his time in the mine. Inevitably, a story grew up that Tobern had a compact with a “mysterious power which dwells in the bowels of the earth, and fuses the metal”. Tobern was always warning that some calamity would strike when “the miners’ impulse to work ceased to be sincere love for the marvellous metals and ores”.
And disaster did strike when the area around the main shaft underwent a massive subsidence on St. John’s Day in 1678. Tobern was never seen again since he was in the mine then. Well, he wasn’t seen on the surface any more around Falun, but miners underground would see him from time to time when he pointed out where rich lodes were. And young men would come to the mines, directed there, seemingly, byTobern. That always happened when there was a shortage of workers.
That day Elis goes to see Pehrson and Ulla and is very surprised when Pehrson announces that Ulla will be marrying a merchant from Goethaborg. Not to worry, though, Pehrson has always thought of Elis as a son, and, when Ulla leaves, Elis can take care of him. Pehrson hopes Elis won’t disappoint him.
Speechless with despair, Elis runs out of the house. He goes to the mine at night, whose crags, in the moonlight, reminds him of “glowing claws”.
Underground, Elis cries
Torbern, I am here; you were not wrong I was a wretched fool to fix my hopes on any earthly love, up on the surface here. My treasure, and my life, my all-in-all, are down below. Torbern! take me down with you! Show me the richest veins, the lodes of ore, the glowing metal! I will dig and bore, and toil and labour. Never, never more will I come back to see the light of day.
Suddenly, he can see the veins as they go back into the rock. His dream with the queen comes back to him, “his consciousness was merged in a feeling of floating in waves of some blue, transparent, glittering mist.”
He hears his name being cried out. It’s Pehrson who finds Elis “standing as if turned to stone”.
Pehrson takes him home, and Ulla embraces him. Pehrson says Elis has been foolish. He was annoyed that Elis wouldn’t talk frankly about how much he loved Ulla. He just wanted to test Elis. He would be happy to have Ulla marry him.
Elis is ovecome with joy – temporarily. But soon the terror of that night in the mine returns to him. He can hear Toborn’s sneering voice asking how he can be happy to be engaged to Ulla when he has seen the queen. He also has the notion that some of the other miners will become giant and take on the form of Tobern. Yet, he can’t understand why Tobern would be hostile to him or the connection between his mining and his love for Ulla.
Ulla seeks to know what troubles Elis, but he can’t bring himself to tell her. He thinks that the queen, like Medusa, could turn him to stone. And the “rapture of the abyss” has become a “pandemonium of immitigable torture”.
Pehrson tells Elis to stay at home for a few days, and, there, Elis finds the terror of the mines receding. When he returns to the mine, he can again see the veins and how they go back into the rock. He can barely remember his joy with Ulla. He feels as
if divided into two halves, as if his better self, his real personality, went down to the central point of the earth, and there rested in bliss in the queen’s arms, whilst he went to his darksome dwelling in Falun.
Though he tells Pehrson he’s discovered the richest vein ever and gives him rock samples, inscribed by ‘the queen’s own hand”, they are found to be worthless. The Captain tells Pehrson “terrible old Tobern has been at him”. Pehrson just thinks Elis is a serious fellow, his head turned by love. He’ll change after marriage.
The wedding is set for St. John’s Day, but Elis doesn’t show up. He tells Ulla he has to go into the mine to get her “a wedding present”. Her tearful pleas to not do it go unheeded. And, when he is down in the mine, history repeats: another great subsidence caves in some of the mine’s workings. Elis is never found.
The story then shifts ahead 50 years. Pehrson is long dead. Ulla has been forgotten.
Some miners are digging a connection between two shafts and find the petrified body of a young man. He’s brought to the surface. As people are looking at the body, an old woman on crutches shows up. She cries out in lamentation: “Oh! Elis Froebom! Oh, my sweet, sweet bridegroom!”
She tells them that, after that terrible day, Tobern came to her and comforted her by saying she would see Elis again. Since that day, every year on St. John’s Day, she has come to the mine hoping to see Elis.
She embraces Elis’ body and dies, and the stone turns to dust. We then are reminded that this is an oral story told to a group of men. They discuss the accuracy of the cultural and mining details of the story.
At the end, though, one of the listeners gets to the heart of the story:
. . . I think it is exceedingly true to nature. I have known people who have suddenly seemed to alter and change completely–who have appeared to be suddenly petrified (so to speak) within themselves, or driven hither and thither by hostile powers, in constant unrest, till some fearful catastrophe has withdrawn them from life.
I think John Clute, in the “E. T. A. Hoffman” entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy sums up the matter by saying of the story it
There’s ambiguity here. Toborn is credited with great insight, yet where Elis thinks a rich vein of ore is there is nothing. Is Toborn real and Elis insane? It’s not just Elis who has seen Toborn, and Toborn has pointed out rich veins to other miners. But does Elis imagine some of his encounters with Toborn while others are “real”?
You might see the story as dealing with what we call “work-life balance”. Pehrson urges dedication of the miner’s trade on Elis. So does Toborn, but his is the obsessive version of concern with work to the exclusion of all else. Mining for Toborn, is a religious calling, a dedication to a supernatural queen who may or may not be real. There is, after all, the strange matter of Elis’ body. Its preservation seems unlikely to just because he was found in “vitriolated water”.